One of the most important things I noticed about Peter Orner’s book Am I Alone Here? is that he is talking about his relationship to books. He lives in a space where words are his business. The feelings you and I get looking into worlds, fictional/relative in a way take us out of the one we are in and they take us to the place I used to think represented the explanation of the phrase: Literature is the opiate of the people, which I derived from the actual one, which says that not literature, but religion does this.
Literature takes you to a place of aesthetic beauty. It is cozy, warm, tender, and truthful.
Orner describes: “Alone in the garage with all these books,” p. xi, “there’s no room on the shelves anymore.” I have this situation, except that I have moved everything in my apartment into my bedroom so that they can remove asbestos. My books and art are piled at my feet and to my sides. I have books that are dear. Everything at this point that is not dear has been discarded. I am moving toward this point of exact reflection, where things I own represent who I am at my deepest and most meaningful.
This is where Orner is coming from.
Having said that, I would like to talk about things I have underlined in the book and why. Reading is about responding to things as they relate to us.
At the very front of the book, I wrote: “A Deadman’s car in another deadman’s parking space.” It was a thought I had while sitting in my car looking across the parking lot at the car of a man, who fell down in his apartment, died, and went unfound for at least a month. I noticed the smell and the flies on the door.
Orner is documenting his thoughts in terms of the ideas/statements in books, I am documenting my thoughts, using his book as inspiration.
The first thing I underlined was, “When we die, not only will our bodies be gone, but so will the people we remember.”
The parking spot that housed the car belonged to the man who bought the car and later died in another car, where he must have had an epileptic seizure and crashed head-on with another car. I was coming home and saw his car, parked, and returned and saw a body lying on the ground. I asked the police officers if that person was my neighbor. I told them who I thought it was and they eventually agreed.
I was not gone, but to him I was. He is now gone and I don’t believe he has any memory of himself. I can say that because I have been in ICU with amnesia. I did not know who I was. I did not exist mentally or physically to myself. Also, I had a heart attack and after I passed out I was no longer aware.
This is why I tell people they don’t have to worry about death. It is the absence of memory, no matter what you will be going through before you can’t remember the pain and the pain is controlled by any memory of it.
“We live in the world, and we recall the world,” Orner said, (p. 11) “and one day we won’t do either anymore.” As you can see how relevant this line is to me.
When he talks about Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo and The Burning Plain and Other Stories, I underline: “People unburdening themselves of the stories they can’t help telling” and this is the core of what Rulfo’s work is about coupled with my knowledge of the book and Latin American books and writers. It is mandatory (in terms of my psyche) that I read it. Orner said that Gabriel García Márquez said he memorized the book for its rhythmic cadences.
I am unburdening the story of myself. I see, hear, and feel great connectivity and meaning. I have a story to tell as associative response. That process of sharing is who I am. I have found that catharsis through literature and art is the most valuable thing in life. I do not have love, consummation of food is now limited given my heart, and so the wisdom and cadence found in books is the only beauty I have.
Here too is another relevant quote: “At what point in your lives do we fall so in love with our own failures that we can’t stop talking about them?” (p. 83)
Obviously, I can’t help talking about my ritual sadness that I have fallen in love with the failure that it is. That pain gives my life meaning. Just the other day someone said that I was too old for another person, except that while I knew this and refrained, that attraction was true, but truth was not the failure of my life.
Then Orner asked: “At one point do we clam up for good?” I think so. We become irrelevant to the social hemisphere and others’ expectations or their rules. We, in effect, commit social suicide.
It is as Orner said: “The silence that follows us around [is] like a premature death.” (p. 85)
This defeat, as he says, becomes my story: “Am I Really Alone Here?” and yes, I have to say that I am.
He talks about a woman, who mattered to him: “All that mattered was Lilly Brisco.” All that matters to me is ____________________. I still think of her constantly. She was my greatest achievement, the woman most regal and mysterious. I think the only reason she took an interest in me was because I broke it off with someone else. It implied superiority, I guess. It’s that reverse psychology stuff.
I believe we stay in love and only pause when a new infatuation arrives. There have been many women who have attracted me and there have only been a few with whom I have had lucky intimacy. The ones you get together with while still in love stand no chance because they are compared to the ones that got away. Now that I am old, the opportunity for love is nearly non-existent, and even if it were not, who I am as an older man makes my attractions ridiculous. My heart still waits for love. I wish I could say the woman’s name, but she would just call me crazy and say to get on with my life. But, love is my life, unrequited love, apparently.
Orner wrote, “I fantasized about becoming a reclusive writer,” p. 113. I haven’t fantasized about being reclusive, but I have become one, who understands that what I write about — unrequited love — makes me out for a sad sack, a loser, which I guess I am. I wanted to be famous for describing that plight of men, but I am white, old, and unwanted. Nothing I say matters to anyone.
My truth is politically-incorrect. My whole life has been a waste-of-time. First, as white in Hawaii’s public schools, then in California, where mansplaining
white males are out-of-touch, like old philosophers, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason gave us the riot act. But, did we listen?
At this moment, I am sitting in the cafe that housed my work and where I spent most of my time writing. The music is playing pleasing, soft, classical piano. Cafe Milano is one of my favorite places in the world: Plywood floor, folding chairs, and marble table tops. How oft I have dreamed of potential lovers here and never was I chosen. For me, life has been the same soft, sweet hope. I am drugged by my genes to wait for words. This is the closest sense I have to who I am.
On page 119, Orner writes, “How can I express my gratitude to a poet who never sought it, who only wanted me to know his creations, not their creator?”
I can totally relate. As an introvert and believer in the persona and not the person and for whom the words come and I move on, except that I keep harping on the same theme as so perhaps I am lying to myself. My sister says to be careful, the world is full of people who will misunderstand and may even hurt you.
I don’t know anymore, my poems have not taken root, like “The Wasteland” or “Burnt Norton.” I have read most of them again, and this is true, they go in and out of beautiful and mediocre. Although a few weeks ago, a publisher said that the short story I read was hypnotic. They’ve said that about Margarite Duras and I know what they mean. Could my work have been as good?
Orner writes: “That little girl in the white dress crossing in front of the hood of the car, and I’ll know that it happened again the night before.” He harbors the thought of hitting a little girl with his car while drunk. I think of that example and how we sometimes end up in places where we never thought we would, only to realize we might have never gotten there if we were where we were supposed to be.
“Ill-washed flesh, infrequently changed underwear, chamber pots, the slop pails, the inadequately plumbed prives, rotting food, unattended teeth,” p, 129. Orner is talking about the place where Lizzie Borden lived and had to manage her life. Lizzie Borden, the household’s youngest daughter, readies herself for the day. Of course she might have whacked someone, what an environment within which to be born and run.
“While Herman Melville was toiling in the Customs House, trying to pay off his bills, J. T. Headley, Charles Briggs, and Fanny Forrester were the toast of literary America,” p. 143. I too have contemplated this. Do my works have value? And if so, will they be recognized before I die? And if they have no value, have I wasted my life?
“After the publication of the collection Women in their Beds in 1996, Berriault enjoyed a brief moment of national recognition.” But, once again, her work is hard to find. I have one person reading and writing about mine, and where she included it in her presentations, I feel it belongs to her. I have lost ownership. I have lost the point of my life and my life is non-existent to others. I will have to buy Orner’s recommendation The Infinite Passion of Expectation, because it explains my life. It is not so much a passion of expectation but a purgatory. Nothing has been decided. How many of you are in this boat? We are awash among and around a few, but, in general, we are unknown.
In effect, you could say that my life has been simply like Orner’s quote: “Love’s found, love’s lost. What’s more calamitous?” p. 155
I am only a thinker, not a doer. But, what a doer does is present in the now and visible to whoever was there, then lost.
I am a Street of Lost Footsteps.
As you read Orner’s list of books, you find yourself to wanting to experience them. Inevitably, I am alone and yes I am alone here. We long for that maudlin tapestry of the self.
Orner quotes, “Phenomenology of Responsibility…a person who doesn’t love doesn’t exist?” In the story, a woman throws herself at her professor to save him; but he realizes that sacrifice is absurd. A beautiful woman sacrifices her body to save an old man.
“There’s an audacious honesty in Havel’s work” (p. 192) and in my own. I think, where truth reveals the absurd, where truth reveals your own abnormality and how isolated you then feel. How do you reinvent yourself, if who you are is inherently offensive or destined to receive the same response? You are stuck, I think. If you reach out to others, your hand will get slapped. At some point, you want to live completely separate, but trouble still finds you.
“Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first Czech president, was also a philosopher, a man who wrote many books, including a ground-breaking study of suicide,” Orner wrote, p. 192.
“Havel,” Orner said, “needed to be with his own in order to create. He remained in prison for almost four years.” I think too I am a man out of my element, a permanent amateur, someone who has lost his way, but is there such a way for someone like myself or even Orner, who eschews money and who wishes to tell the maudlin truth of the artist, who constantly wishes to express himself, although that self is inherently flawed amid a world governed by more practical spirits.
“I am still a fool,” p. 199, “as my losses pile up,” and so at 56, I am destined to ultimately fail. I am not a coder, a doctor, some financier, or someone for whom the way to success is apparently more pragmatic. I write inevitably, about myself; a recipe for disaster. And so there you are.
This is my status: “The story is less about insatiable ambition than about what a writer does when he’s simply got nothing left to say.” When I hear myself complain, I see that I have caused it all. I think we retire, when we see we are no longer relevant or when we keep repeating ourselves. I never found love because there was nothing left to love. I was only the complainant and no longer the person. You could hear it in everything I said.
“Writing poetry is the exploitation of a substrata of memory that is imperfectly understood.” I have never satisfied the need for sex and thus sex, according to Maslow, is all I will ever think about.
“What happens when you’ve got no substrata left to understand? On top of all this, the only thing the old widower can think about, aside from the Nobel prize, is sex,” p. 207
In response to pages, 207-208, I write in the margins: She writes all day and the editor looks over her work and says, “Why don’t we throw this away?” And she looks at him. He tosses it in the trash and says: “It doesn’t matter that it was lost to the world, all that will happen is that those will be a few seconds of peace.” “Lugging his lust,” Orner said, p. 210
At least there is hope for me when Orner quotes Gallant, who wrote: “The French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure in an artist.” My books have sold few copies. I am as obscure as the day I started writing and perhaps even more availed where the truth of who I am was the opposite of who I thought. Against the back drop of others, I am either misunderstood or correctly unmarketable or even liked as a person.
Have I been “Daydreaming?”
Have I self-reflected and yet not seen who I was?
What does the character of who I am want?
“Fiction writers must…create lasting characters…who are as inconsistent, as foolish, as rash as we are…beyond the page. But, the truth of me is even more than I can take. Am I the manifestation of the phrase: “Truth is stranger than fiction?”
“What should have happened?” I do not know. I am blind to anything else but to who I truly am.
“Maybe it is the welcome darkness of this morning.”
Orner said: “For me writing has always been about holding a mirror to life and then smashing it…” I don’t understand this. When you hold a mirror to life you are standing behind the mirror, unless the creature before it is sentient, the mirror may reflect it, and if it is a woodpecker, it may attack its reflection as an intruder, but otherwise it remains indifferent. I believe and in the case of the bird it doesn’t recognize itself. It doesn’t see itself but something that reminds itself of danger.
When Orner holds the mirror to life, he is showing us what life is; art imitates life. But, then he destroys this communication of the truth, what is real. It is just Orner and the subject in front, the two looking at each other. How does he tell us what he thinks or is there? The mirror is down in the dust. Again, it is just the two of them and me/us looking over his shoulder.
“Isn’t there just something about our past words that is comforting,” p. 278. Recently, someone asked a question about poetry and I was demonstrating my ability over a long time, say 25 years and I read a poem I had written about my ex-wife in the year we met and married. I said, that I knew she didn’t love me. I married her anyway. We got divorced five years later. That poem, although straight-forward, documented my knowledge and the clarity of it.
“The reflection of a thing, not the thing itself, has become the source of all mystery,” p. 281.
I made a coffee table photography book entitled Urban Reflections. About it, I argue that I am trying to capture the catharsis of art, that weepy interconnection between the work and the viewer. The reflections in urban windows that I take in a number of cities looks behind the glass, the reflection on the glass, which is inevitable, what is captured in the reflection in front or behind and around me. The reflection becomes the consciousness of the viewer and thus yes it is mysterious. Do we really know who we are even while we are staring at ourselves? As we look out of our eyes, we think about the things in front in terms of us and what we need. We think about the world in our terms. Contemplation is the mystery.
“Crowded Loneliness of Bohumil Hrabal,” Orner said. In a crowded loneliness, the loneliness is crowded. There is a lonely person amidst a crowd. Even in the coffee shop full of people, he felt alone. He could open his mouth, write on a piece of paper, but he knew without having to do anything that the woman, who held his interest could feel his contemplating her, and he also knew that in time, she would be collecting her things because, he felt, that his feelings for her were communicated and uncomfortable. On the trail, he passed a smiling woman who was running with a friend, he liked her from behind and from the side as he passed. He told himself that when he passed her coming back on the trail, if she stopped him he would know if she liked him. As they passed, she looked from a distance and when he got close enough to see her eyes, she looked down. He passed her.
“Loopy cadence,” p. 283. When Orner writes this I understand his love of how writers, who I love to write with loopy cadence, like Joan Didion in Play it as it Lays or After Henry, Margarite Duras’ The Lover, any number of hypnotic writers, who cast their spells, see also: Too Loud a Solitude by Boumil Hrabal.
“Only individual memory has the unique power to redeem us,” p. 284. What is individual memory, my memory vs. yours that has the power to redeem you? Unless I communicate it, how will you know? My memory causes me both pain and whimsy. I think about the women I have loved as I know I can never go back. I wait for one but I know the futility in that. My absolute love is as meaningless to me as is the absolute love I have received from others. This is the saddest thing on earth and I don’t know why our world is made of so much loss. What a waste.
Yet, Orner quotes the Talmud, p. 285, “For we are like olives: only when we are crushed do we yield what is best in us.” Singing like a Thorn Bird, I am not sure when we take ourselves out of this, I think the other person can relate on his/her own terms.